In the 1970s, the Fonz was the coolest guy on television. He with the Brylcreem and comb, who ruled the roost from the men's room at Arnold's, worked the jukebox with a bang of his fist, and jumped a shark on water skis in his trademark leather jacket.
Twenty-five years after Henry Winkler stripped off his tight jeans and gave Milwaukee a double-thumbs-up goodbye, the 64-year-old actor was recently found strolling the main street of Burk's Falls, Ont., heading back to his room (the Getaway Suite) at the Village Manor, the best bed-and-breakfast in town.
The woman who runs it, Louisa, is wonderful. She takes care of her grandchildren. She takes care of your bathroom. She takes care of the boiler. And she makes you breakfast.
Having a star the size of Fonzie in town is hardly an everyday occurrence for the good folks of Burk's Falls (population something somewhere under 1,000), just north of Huntsville. And the gregarious actor - who was there for a week shooting an independent Canadian comedy called Running Mates - says the locals welcomed him with open arms, treating him like the regular guy he is.
How regular? "He'd clear the dishes before I could get to the table," says Louisa Moffit, the Village Manor's proprietor. "He'd greet other guests at the front door, and help carry their luggage. Henry is just a really normal, considerate gentleman."
"Let me say, if you're going to stay somewhere - up there - that's the place," Winkler said in an interview, after wrapping the film a week ago. "The woman who runs it, Louisa, is wonderful.
"She takes care of her grandchildren. She takes care of your bathroom. She takes care of the boiler. And she makes you breakfast," added Winkler, excitedly rhyming off the items of a Village Manor breakfast: scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, yogurt, bacon.
"She treats everybody like that. She opened her kitchen up to Graham Greene [who co-stars in the film] a five-star chef who travels with his own knives. Graham and his wife, Hilary, made a rack of lamb, I swear, that is as good as you'd get at any restaurant you've ever been in.
"Do you know how friendly, how inclusive, how open, and how gorgeous it is [up there]" he continues. "The leaves are changing! We don't get that in L.A."
Co-written by Canadian actors Thomas Michael and Paolo Mancini (creators of Hank and Mike and Greg & Gentillon ), Running Mates is a comedy in the vein of a Christopher Guest film, a mock documentary about two small-town pals running against each other for mayor. Winkler donned Hawaiian shirts to play the incumbent leader of fictional small-town Shoulder.
He accepted the role after getting a phone call from Michael, who also directs the film. "I'm so happy I was smart enough to say yes," says Winkler. "I had read the script and then had a wonderful conversation with Thomas. My father always told me, 'The tone makes the music,' and I knew after talking to this young man that I'd be in good hands.
"This film is a labour of love for both Thomas and Paolo, who have known each other since the fourth grade. They wrote this together. They're acting together, and they've collected an unbelievably eclectic cast," says Winkler, referring to fellow American DJ Qualls ( Hustle & Flow , Road Trip ), Jane McLean ( The Time Traveler's Wife ), Linda Kash and Mike Beaver.
"Thomas is a genuine first-class leader. This kid could be my son," adds Winkler, whose third child, Max (with long-time wife, Stacey), is also an aspiring film director. "And here I am being yelled at, reprimanded, by a guy who was just really clear about what he wanted - how he saw it - which is precisely what an actor needs."
Since Happy Days finished its 10-year run in 1984, Winkler's been less high-profile than in those heady Fonzie days - but consistently busy nonetheless. He has continued to act in movies ( The Waterboy , Click ), on Broadway (Neil Simon's The Dinner Party ), on television ( The Practice , Arrested Development ), and has also produced ( MacGyve r) and directed ( Sabrina, the Teenage Witch ).
In his spare time, he has written a series of 17 children's novels, with Lin Oliver, called Hank Zipzer: The World's Greatest Underachiever , about a fourth-grader who is inquisitive and bright, but dyslexic - a kid modelled after Winkler, who didn't figure out dyslexia was the root of his struggles until he was 31. "I guess my parents never had me diagnosed because, when I was growing up, no one knew there was such a thing as a learning challenge," says Winkler, whose Jewish parents emigrated from Germany before the start of the Second World War and subsequently ran a lumber company in New York.
He characterizes himself as growing up with "a high level of low self-esteem." Despite that, Winkler went on to earn a degree from Emerson College in Boston and a master of fine arts from the Yale School of Drama.
ABC's Happy Days , he recounts, was his first big break. Originally cast in a bit part, audiences lapped up the grease monkey from the wrong side of the tracks who befriended the wholesome Richie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard. His role grew, and Winkler ended up an unlikely seventies icon, starring in 255 episodes.
"It was a fabulous experience," says Winkler. "We were a very tight family, who are friends to this day. I talk to Ron all the time. He's like my younger brother. I sometimes just leave him a message that I love him. He's a personally powerful, very talented, understated man."
If he hadn't become an actor, Winkler figures he would have become a child psychologist. "Because I grew up with my self-image down around my ankles, and was told I'd never achieve … I've come to truly believe self-image is the beginning and the end of living. It's mandatory for children to understand - no matter how they learn - that they have greatness inside of them. I say that to kids ad nauseam. I'll stop them on the street and tell them they're great, until they go screaming to their parents that there's this weird guy talking to them."
Winkler knows the importance of living every moment - a philosophy cemented six years ago when his friend of more than two decades, John Ritter, died suddenly on the set of 8 Simple Rules … for Dating My Teenage Daughter . Winkler was there, doing a cameo, and was one of the last people to see the actor alive. "He said, 'Listen to me. I'm going to get some water because I'm sweaty,'" Winkler remembers. "And that was the last I ever saw of him.
"I loved John," says Winkler, who had known Ritter for 25 years. "We just connected, you know? I have very few acting partners that were as powerful as Ron and John."
As the conversation concludes, Winkler pauses for a moment. "Hold on. Don't go away," he shouts into the phone. "I'm giving a hug."
To whom, pray tell? "Steve, who drove me from the airport." Of course - who else?
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